Sunday, February 05, 2012

Our history hangs by a thread


It's the curse of the modern age.

And it's perhaps far more insidious than censorship.

Historians of the future will curse us.

And it's already depriving modern day campaigners of their own resources.

It's the tendency for web sites full of important information to be lost.

Our modern history relies on just one university-based project.


The odd thing about this phenomenon is that most people think the reverse. We are all told to be careful about what we post on the Internet as it will be there forever and will be hard to remove.

Well, maybe that's so if we are talking of drunken indiscretions posted by your 'friends' to Facebook. The launch of the new timeline feature there has brought home just how much the social networking giant has stored over the years on its servers. When editing my own timeline I was surprised to realise that everything I had written there in the last five years was all faithfully preserved.

Fragile history

In 1995 I created my own first web site, using the facilities provided then by the US service CompuServe. From January 1996 I developed that space further to provide the growing trans rights campaign Press for Change with its first proper web presence. You can't see any of that now though, because CompuServe took down the whole "our world" service on 30th June 2009.

The only pages of mine that survive from that era are those captured by a little known service known as the Internet Archive … aka the Way Back Machine.

Here's my original personal site, as captured in December 1998. Aw, didn't I look young?

Knowing where to look

By the time that first snapshot of my CompuServe web site had been taken we had already moved the Press for Change pages to a commercial server and a dedicated domain. The site was then managed by my very talented campaign colleague Claire McNab, and we worked closely together with me writing much of the content and her putting it up.

If you know how to look for it, that original Press for Change site was also first snapped in December 1998 (by which time it had already evolved considerably, over 18 months of development.

In 2006 the Press for Change web site had a complete technical and content facelift, with vice-president Tracy Dean implementing a content management system and me once again writing the content for new sections that reflected the campaign's new post-legislative emphasis. Here it is just before the change in January and afterwards, in December.

The PFC web site continued to grow whilst Tracy and I remained in charge. However, I left Press for Change in November 2007 and Tracy left shortly afterwards. This was how it was looking in mid 2008.

After that the site fell into disrepair. This was how it looked, broken, in October 2009.

Another volunteer then stepped in and gave the site another revamp. This is what it looked like in August 2010. Then it crashed out completely and I gather that the contents were lost. It is only recently that Press for Change has gone back on air, with a new site built from scratch … and most of the original content, documenting one of the most effective campaigns of its kind, lost to casual visitors.

Not the only case

I can provide you with this history tour through the Press for Change web site because, of course, I know the original site intimately and remember roughly where to look.

None of the content you can find by trawling the Internet Archive is indexed by search engines like Google though. So if you're one of a new generation of campaigners, the valuable material (particularly on two decades of legal work and the first hand reports on historical milestones) is not immediately apparent. It relies on the memories of my generation.

And the Internet Archive is not infallible.

Much of Press for Change's history was documented in the web archives of over 4,500 posts to the campaign's list server, PFC-News. The archive captured the indexes to this, which include some fascinating snapshots of the paper newsletters that we sent out in the early days; however the bulk of the news archive was never saved by the Internet Archive because those pages were actually coded to deter automated web crawlers. The index records that I sent the very first message through PFC-News on 18th July 1997, but you can't drill any deeper to find out what it said.

The Internet archive also doesn't preserve active content or media such as MP3 files. Therefore, all the Podcasts that I produced on the Press for Change site from 2005 are now completely unavailable. You can find the pages that describe them, but not the recordings (except in my own personal offline archives).

Government sites too

A similar issue occurs with the web sites of Government departments. When the Coalition took power in May 2010 one of the first things they did was to shove parts of the previous administration's content onto the National Archive.

This is where, for instance, the whole of the Department of Health's pages on Equality and Diversity ended up. This is also where you'd have to look to find the products of years of my work on transgender equality, for instance. Again, I know personally how to find these pages because I was intimately involved in getting the Department to set them up. It's not so easy for others who may be looking for this information though.

Annoyance or Tragedy?

Personally I find the short-lived transitory nature of internet content mostly just an annoyance. I have a much better index between my ears from 20 years of work, and my office is full of archived material that I can reach for. Nevertheless, it slows me down and makes it sometimes difficult to refer to sources in my writing.

For a new generation, however, I think it is nothing less than a tragedy … especially as I lurk in modern activist fora (which are even more vulnerable to sudden loss) and see people reinventing wheels to solve problems my generation solved only 10-15 years ago.

For trans people, whose work and views have been virtually ignored by the mainstream media until very recently, the loss of historical references online is even more aggravated, because there is practically nothing in public archives that documents our history and work. This makes trans people vulnerable to people who would rewrite that history.

Hanging by a thread

You may think that the Internet Archive is at least a way of mitigating these risks. It was started as a project in 1996 precisely for the reasons I've stated. However, the project is reliant on donations and was only able to complete a sweep of the entire web in 2007because of a generous grant. Dig deeper into their pages and you'll see how the system relies on a collection of second hand computers to operate. It too could disappear one day.

These days I look at my own paper and disc archives with renewed gratefulness that I kept them. Ironically, I feel as though I've got a better historical record of the early days of my work, in the pre-web days of the early 1990s, than I have for work undertaken at the Department of Health just three years ago. It's a reminder to treat those archives with care and I hope one day I will find a reliable home to look after them.

All I can say to a current generation is to keep this volatility of information in mind, and to ensure what you're doing today is still there for the people who follow you.



Andie said...

I've thought a lot about this, and heard from government departments about whole lost archives in departmental changes. I'm concerned about the kind of archaeology that needs to be done to ensure the right bit in Internet Archive is represented as being factually sound. The Archive snapshots can represent anything, not just the "truth as known at the time". Development pages can stick, whilst slightly later final versions are lost to something even more recent, perhaps a draft, brought about by rapid political change. Sites change their environments too: an old page published as html, renamed in php may or may not then be the same page next in asp. How do you cross-index that?

Even if we retain the ability to read all the old formats, we may start to make judgments about what is worth keeping - just for historical interest at the level of social geography? How many contradictory views do we need to contribute to "how it really was"? It's bad enough expecting people searching the Internet to make sound judgments on the truth now! But in 100 years the volume will be immense, even if we do fathom quantum data storage.

And for all the universal availability, it all somehow feels a tad vulnerable. Not like unrolling a scroll 5,000 years after it was first rolled up, which requires a safe, dry shelf and no energy and no special device.

To whom shall I bequeath my dead Kindle and obsolete external hard drive?

Christine Burns said...

Thanks for that Andie. You've added a lot of finer detail on the problems we store up for the future.

As, I say, I'm pointedly aware of the issues because the better part of the most important 20 years of my work has been affected in this way.

Fitting perhaps that, as we we pioneered ways of using the web as the physical embodiment of a campaign, we should also lead on being vulnerable to the volatile nature of the beast.

I worry even more now, however, about campaigning that's done through Facebook pages, and through the use of content spread across many sites, such as linking to YouTube.

Maybe the solution is to face up to the fact that, for all its ubiquity, we should regard the web as being as volatile as a conversation. In that case archiving should be something done separately, by archivists despatched to the scene in the same way we send reporters to cover wars and demonstrations.

Andie said...

I believe you're right. We are as careless as entering an office of loose papers and expecting it all to still be there when we get back. Creating a library is a far more deliberate thing, and we need a generation of web librarians who can pull it together as a record. We stand to lose a lot if we don't.

Denise Anderson said...

Hi Christine :)

As you know i've volunteered for the task of getting the pfc site going again... for me it's been a case of getting something back up there and being visible and then slowly trying to get some of the older stuff back, such as the case law... but i'm frustrated too.... i'm a keen lover of history and i would love to see the history of pfc on there.... people do need to see what was achieved by you all then....

Christine Burns said...

Denise, if you email me then I have a snapshot of all the old static HTML files from the legal section of the (pre CMS) web site, which I saved a few years ago. It's pre 2001, so doesn't include the later judgements, but it may save you some time